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Resurrecting lost neighborhoods: Urban renewal and housing segregation in the Lehigh archives

Lehigh Archives and Special Collections Librarian Ilhan Citak convened a panel of Lehigh faculty members Kim Carrell-Smith, History, and Karen Beck Pooley, Political Science, at the Spring 2019 meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) in Morgantown, West Virginia, to discuss how the use of archival resources and community-based fieldwork and resident interviews uncovered the history of urban development and redevelopment in Bethlehem.

Serving as both moderator and a speaker, Citak led a discussion on the meeting’s theme, Working Archives: A Labor of Love. MARAC, a regional association of archivists, records managers, and historians from Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., offers more than one thousand members opportunities to discuss archival topics and develop new skills through breakout sessions, workshops, and guest lecturers. The panel also described how archival urban development records may be incorporated into online content and can be produced by and integrated into academic courses on urban studies, public history, and planning. 

Citak talked about how the university archives assembled collections from various resources that helped to reconstruct the memory of a lost neighborhood. These collections complemented each other and connected the dots in order to tell a story of a location where the university buildings now stand. Ilhan’s presentation mainly focused on provenance, accession, processing, and preservation of urban development collections in Lehigh’s Special Collections that were acquired from the Lehigh Facilities Services, members of the South Bethlehem community, and from the City of Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority.

Tony Hanna, Executive Director of Redevelopment of Authority of the City of Bethlehem, who facilitated the transfer of these records from the City to Lehigh’s Special Collections, said “The Redevelopment Authority has been engaged in urban renewal and redevelopment activities in the City of Bethlehem since the early 1950s. As Executive Director, I felt it was very important for the paper records (maps, site plans, meeting minutes) of the Redevelopment Authority to be preserved and archived safely in a secure repository.” Hanna, a 1973 Lehigh graduate, said he was well aware of the University's outstanding Library Collections and resources and reached out to the University's Special Collections library to arrange for the donation of the records to the University.

“These records are priceless and (irreplaceable) pieces of the City's history that needed to be preserved. This joint stewardship is an excellent example of how cities and public agencies can work with local institutions on preserving the past and important historical information for the future,” he said.

The mission of Special Collections is not just collecting and preserving historical documents, but also connecting them with productive researchers to expand Lehigh’s impact as prescribed in Lehigh’s Path to Prominence: “expansion, evolution, and exploration.” Special Collections has been working closely with other LTS staff and Lehigh faculty to facilitate these kind of joint stewardship efforts so that these collections, deemed “at risk,” are preserved and professionally prepared for academic research, fieldwork, classroom use, as well as public access.

Karen Beck Pooley and her students examine a neighborhood map during the Special Collections class session.

The second presenter, Karen Beck Pooley, Professor of Practice, Political Science, and Director of Lehigh’s Environmental Policy Master’s Program, talked about the ways this type of archival research can be incorporated into a class on a related topic. Her class on residential segregation and the history of federal housing and urban redevelopment policy spends time looking at Lehigh's South Side neighborhood and the urban renewal projects done there - projects that were documented by students in other courses (such as Kim Carrell-Smith’s, described below) utilizing these special collections. 

The third presenter, Kim Carrell-Smith, Professor of Practice in Public History, whose research and teaching focus on community-engaged history, primarily in the ethnically diverse Southside of Bethlehem, talked about successful collaborations with community partners, including the local historical society, local organizations and businesses, as well as many residents. Professor Carrell-Smith and her students have worked with the LTS Digital Scholarship team on “virtual tours” for the university-maintained website and interactive digital community archive, Still Looking for You.

Her classes have explored a wide range of topics of regional interest. Included among them are: the history of a vibrant neighborhood that was lost to urban renewal; the stories of many ethnic churches; and the commercial district in South Bethlehem. Students consulted various collections including campus maps, the Epitome, the Brown and White, Bethlehem Housing Authority and Redevelopment Authority Collections, Papers of Anna Pongracz, and family photograph albums, scrapbooks, documentary film, and original oral history interviews-- to explore and share the history of the Southside and “reconstruct the lost neighborhood.”

Kim Carrell-Smith (far left) conducts class meeting with students in Special Collections (Danielle Lehr Schagrin pictured far right).

Danielle Lehr Schagrin, a student of Kim Carrell-Smith, who earned her MA in History in 2015 said, “We spent time in class discussing how to ask effective oral history questions— questions that would allow those we interviewed the opportunity to share irreplaceable memories about the “Lost Neighborhood.” The time we spent in Lehigh’s Special Collections studying documents on urban renewal, the Anna Pongracz papers, the Brown and White, and other Lehigh documents gave us the background we needed to ask those questions. Along the way, we learned how to approach an emotional topic with empathy and respect. Adding residents’ memories to the collection became a process of healing, as well as an academic responsibility.”

These and other local and regional land development collections have been attracting growing interest with the advancement in geospatial technology. Special Collections holds a wide range of map and site plan collections for research and classroom use. Recently, Professor Jerry Lennon and students from his Technical Entrepreneurship course worked with the Stabler Land Company Collection in order to scientifically analyze Lehigh owned “Friedensville Zinc Mine” land in Upper Saucon. To discuss how to take your project to the next level, please contact Special Collections.